Getting there is half the fun

May 26,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

On Friday we loaded up the kids, the dog, our suitcases, and every stuffed animal L. and T. own, and we pointed the van north and headed out of town for the weekend. We stayed the weekend with my parents, so we could go to a wedding about an hour away from where they live. The trip to their house is always frustrating; it’s one of those car trips that should take a lot less time than it actually does take. But once you factor in the bathroom stops and the horrendous traffic going across the Woodrow Wilson bridge, the trip ends up taking quite a bit longer than you optimistically hoped it would when you first set out. We packed coloring books and stacks of library books, and four volumes of Junie B. Jones on CD (mind-numbing after two hours straight, let me tell you), and lots of snacks, and hoped for the best.

We’ve done many car trips with the kids over the years. In our graduate student days, when L. was a baby, we drove from upstate New York to Maryland about three or four times a year. We had packing the car down to an art form, and we always stopped at the same Wegman’s grocery store every single time, so L. could stretch his little legs in the video rental section of the store (his favorite game, for a good few months when he was first crawling, was to pull up on the video store racks and yank the tapes off the shelves), and I could buy a bag of salt bagels and a coffee for lunch. The routines were comforting, and divided the eight-hour trip up into manageable chunks. I think they were comforting for L., too, even when he was little. Travel is unpredictable for kids, and the more you can make trips feel familiar and routine, then the less stressful traveling is for them.

Even now that the kids are both older, and our route is no longer north to south, but south to north, we stop at the same places for lunch (going north we always eat pizza and salad at a small off-the-highway Italian place decorated, incongruously, with aerial photographs of parking lots in the surrounding area; going south we do pizza again, but this time at another Italian restaurant, more authentically decorated with gondolas on the walls). The Virginia welcome center is L.’s favorite rest stop in the world, and there he loads up with maps and visitor guides, and then spends the next 30 or 40 minutes of the trip pouring over them in the backseat of the van.

On this trip on Friday we suffered through more Junie B. Jones than anyone should have to listen to, and read countless books to T., and listened to Laurie Berkner until our heads spun. And then, after lunch, came that golden time when we were going to plug a DVD into Scott’s old work laptop and blissfully--we hoped--experience a solid hour and 20 minutes of silence (about as long as the battery will hold out). Except, when the time came, we discovered the battery hadn’t charged fully, and so there WAS no DVD, just two disappointed, fidgety, and wailing kids in the backseat of a suddenly very small van. "How would we make it?" I thought in desperation, the remainder of the trip stretching out ahead of us like a bleak day. But, as it often turns out in the world of parenting crises, we managed just fine in the end. And really, Scott and I reminded ourselves, it used to be there WERE no such things as in-car entertainment systems, and captain’s chairs, and separate cup holders for everyone. Car travel has changed a lot since I was a kid. We're spoiled these days--kids and parents alike--sitting with great distances between each other in souped up minivans and SUVs, or plugged-in to entertainment systems. Like almost everything about progress, some of it is good, some of it bad. I wonder sometimes--thinking about how car travel is done these days, and what it means, and what we’ve come to rely on as parents--if we’ve lost a bit of the sense of getting there.

It used to be that car trips were about cramming into a car or station wagon (or, in our case--for years--a VW bus), being scrunched between your siblings while they poked and prodded and annoyed you until you wished you could roll down the window (remember when windows rolled?) and push them out. When we weren’t busy getting on each other’s nerves, we played “I Spy” and “How Many Blue Cars Can You See?” and of course “I’m Poking You”--that game where you stealthily poke at your sibling with your finger and count how many seconds it takes before they notice your forefinger in their ribs. And while getting there wasn’t often half the fun, it was always a part of the fun; we did always feel closer to one another when the trip was over, when we tumbled out of the backseat of the car, sweaty and cramped, and we were FINALLY THERE--that magical place, whatever it was, that meant an end to the driving and the bickering and the boredom. Each of us knew, so keenly--inside and out--exactly what getting there had meant, and that made being FINALLY THERE all the more worth it in the end.